I just finished my teleconference with the folks at the Guerilla Marketing Association.

It was a great way to speak to a group of aspiring authors and reminds me I need to do so more often because it always brings up a number of good questions.

Besides the very common go-round on what goes into a proposal, how much your platform matters, and how can you protect your ideas, someone asked about the absolute metrics a publisher uses to decide on whether to do a book or not.

My answer was that “it depends.”

For a big publisher of trade hardcover fiction (depending on the advance and marketing put into it) you’re probably shooting for books that have the potential to sell 100,000 copies. But again, that depends on the initial investment and a title from more literary house may be considered successful at 20,000 copies.

For a computer book with a company like Wiley or O’Reilly, once you sell 20,000 copies I’d say the publisher is pleased and the author has made some money, no windfall, but enough to keep writing, and it’s a book probably worth revising, especially as revisions typically take less effort that the first edition. For these publishers it’s the books that eke out 10,000 copies per edition or less that are hard to justify, though they certainly break even from the publisher’s perspective.

For a small house like Countryman, a Norton subsidiary which publishes travel guide books and outdoors titles, they may pay a commensurately small advance, but can do okay if a book sells 2000 copies in the first year and keeps ticking at that same rate for ten years. I don’t mean to imply that an entire program can work if every book sells at this rate, but a publisher can support a backlist of many titles that sell modestly. Every successful publisher — and agent for that matter — needs hits and franchise titles or series to really grow.

For the author, the question is — what do these figures mean to your life? If you write to make a living you need to shoot for books that sell well and create repeat publisher and reader business. But some of my clients are passionate about a topic and want to write a book that fulfills their hobby and passion in life, and are perfectly happy to do a book that will sell only 2000 copies per year but will backlist well.

That’s the answer I gave on the call at any rate. Some books that may not be profitable for a professional writer may certainly add plenty to the life of a passionate writer who may find many intangible benefits in being published.

  One Response to “How many copies do you have to sell to make a book worthwhile?”

  1. Many subject areas such as enterprise architecture sell 2000 copies a year for the next ten years but publishers don’t seem to be interested in this space anymore. Any thoughts on publishing books that are higher up the food chain. May make a great post for future blog entry…


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